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MUNDUS IMAGINALIS 
OR 

THE IMAGINARY AND THE IMAGINAL 



HENRY CORBIN 
(Paris/Teheran) 

from 

Spring 1972 - Zurich 

[This paper, delivered at the Colloquium on Symbolism in Paris in June 1964, appeared in 
the Cahiers internationaux de symbolisme 6 , Brussels 1964, pp. 3-26. The version printed here has 
been condensed (with the permission of the author) by omitting paragraphs of a technical 
nature on pages 5 and 8 of the original, as well as an account (pp. 17-23) of the topography 
of the Eighth Clime. The complete text of this account has been published in H. Corbin, En 
Islam iranien: aspects spirituels et philosophiques, tome IV, livre 7, Paris: Gallimard, 1971. Other 
writings of Prof. Corbin have been published regularly in French in the Eranos Jahrbiicher. His 
major works in English translation are: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (Bollingen Series 
LXVI) N. Y. and London, 1960 and Creative Imagination in the Sufism oflbn'Arabi, Princeton 
and London, 1969. - Eds.] 



03 

My intention in proposing the two Latin words mundus imaginalis as a title for this paper was 
to circumscribe a very precise order of reality, which corresponds to a precise mode of 
perception. Latin terminology has the advantage of providing us with a fixed and technical 
point of reference against which we can compare and measure the various, more or less 
vague equivalents suggested by modern Western languages. 

To begin with, I shall make a confession. The choice of the two words had begun to become 
inevitable for me some time ago, because I found it impossible to content myself with the 
word imaginary for what I had to translate or to describe. This is by no means intended as a 
criticism of those whom language usage compels to have recourse to this word, since all of 
us are trying merely to revalue it in the positive sense. However, despite all our efforts, we 
cannot prevent that, in current and non-premeditated usage, the term imaginary is equated 
with the unreal, with something that is outside the framework of being and existing, in brief, 
with something Utopian. The reason why I absolutely had to find another expression was 
that, for a good many years, my calling and my profession required me to interpret Arabic 
and Persian texts, whose meaning I would undoubtedly have betrayed had I simply 
contented myself — even by taking all due precaution — with the term imaginary. I had to 
find a new expression to avoid misleading the Western reader, who, on the contrary, has to 
be roused from his old engrained way of thinking in order to awaken him to another order 
of things. 



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In other words, if in French (and in English) usage we equate the imaginary with the unreal, 
the Utopian, this is undoubtedly symptomatic of something that contrasts with an order of 
reality, which I call the mundus imaginalis , and which the theosophers of Islam designate as the 
"eighth clime". After a brief outline of this order of reality, we shall study the organ which 
perceives it, i.e., imaginative consciousness, cognitive Imagination; and finally, we shall draw 
some conclusions from the experiences of those who have really been there. 

/. “Na-KojaAbad”’ or the Eighth Clime 

I just mentioned the word utopian. Strangely enough — or perhaps it is the poignant example 
— in Persian, our authors use a term that seems to be its linguistic transfer: Na-Koja-Abad, 
"the country of non-where". And yet, this place is anything but a utopia. 

Let us look at the very beautiful narratives, which are both visionary tales and tales of 
spiritual initiation, written in Persian by Sohrawardi, the young sheikh who was "the 
resurrector of ancient Persian theosophy" in the Islamic Iran of the twelfth century. At the 
beginning of each narrative, the visionary finds himself in the presence of a supernatural 
being of great beauty, whom he asks who he is and whence he comes. Essentially, these tales 
illustrate the Gnostic's experience, lived as the personal history of the Stranger, the captive 
aspiring to return home. 

At the beginning of the narrative, which Sohrawardi entitles The Crimson Archangel ', the 
captive, who has just escaped the watchful eyes of his gaolers, i.e., who has momentarily left 
the world of sensible experience, finds himself in the desert in the presence of a being who 
appears to him to be endowed with all the graces of adolescence. He therefore asks him: 
"Whence do you come, oh Youth!" And the answer is: "How so? I am the eldest child of the 
Creator [in Gnostic terms the Protokistos, the First-Created] and you call me a youth?" His 
origin gives the clue to the mysterious purple-red colour in which he appears: it is the colour 
of a being that is pure Light, whose brilliance is attenuated to a twilight purple by the 
darkness of the world of earthly creatures. "I come from beyond Mount Qaf. .. This is where 
you were at the beginning and it is where you will return, once you are free of your 
shackles." 

Mount Qaf is the cosmic mountain, which, summit after summit and valley after valley, is 
built up of celestial spheres, all enveloping one another. Where then is the road that leads 
out of it? What is the distance? "However far you may journey", it is said, "you will always 
come back to the point of departure", just as the needle of the compass always swerves back 
to the magnetic point. Does this simply mean that you leave yourself to come back to 
yourself? Not quite, because, in the meantime a very important event will have changed 
everything. The self one finds yonder, beyond Mount Qaf, is a higher self, the self 
experienced as a "Thou". Like Khezr (or Khadir, the mysterious prophet, the eternal 
wanderer Elijah or his double), the traveller has to bathe in the Spring of Life. 



1 cf. The author's French translation of this little treatise (written in Persian by Sohrawardi) in En Islam iranien, 
aspects spirituels et philosophiques, vol. II, book II: "Sohrawardi et les Platoniciens de Perse", Paris (Gallimard), 
1971. For a more complete study of the topics dealt with here, cf. ibid, particularly vol. IV, book VII on the 
12th Imam or the "Imam cache". 



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He who has discovered the meaning of True Reality has arrived at this Spring. When he 
emerges from the Spring, he is endowed with a Gift that likens him to the balsam of 
which a drop, distilled in the hollow of one's hand held up against the sun, trans-passes 
to the back of the hand. If you are Khezr, you, too, can pass beyond Mount Qaf without 
difficulty. 

The expression Na-Koja-Abad is a strange term. It is not listed in any Persian dictionary, 
and, as far as I know, it was forged by Sohrawardi himself by using purely Persian roots. 
Literally it means the city, the land (abad) of nonwhere (Na-Koja). This is why we are 
confronted here with a term that, at first sight, may seem to us to be the exact equivalent of 
the term ou-topia , which in turn is not listed in any of the classical Greek dictionaries and was 
created by Thomas More as an abstract concept to denote the absence of any localization, of 
any given situs in the kind of space that can be explored and controlled by our sense 
experience. Etymologically and literally it might be correct to translate Na-Koja-Abad by 
outopia or utopia , and yet I believe that this would be a misinterpretation of the concept, the 
intention behind it, as well as its meaning in terms of lived experience. It therefore seems to 
me exceedingly important at least to try to find out why it would be a mistranslation. 

I believe it is indispensible here to be clear in our minds as to the real meaning and impact of 
the mass of information about the topographies explored in a visionary state, i.e., the 
intermediary state between waking and sleeping, including the information that, for the 
spiritualists of Shi'ite Islam, concerns the "country of the hidden Imam". In alerting us to a 
differential that relates to an entire area of the soul, and hence to an entire spiritual culture, 
this clarification would lead us to ask: under what circumstances does what we currently call 
a utopia, and therefore the type of man called utopist, become possible? How and why does 
he make his appearance? I am in fact asking myself whether anything like it can be found in 
traditional Islamic thought. I do not believe, for example, that the descriptions of the 
"Perfect City" by Farabi in the tenth century, or, along the same lines, the "Rule of the 
Solitary " 2 by the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Bajja (Avempace) in the twelfth century, were 
projections of what we call today a social or political utopia. To understand these descriptions 
as utopias, we would, I fear, have to abstract them from their own premises and 
perspectives, imposing our own dimensions instead. Above all, however, I fear that we 
would have to be resigned to a confusion of the Spiritual City with an imaginary city. 

The word Na-Koja-Abad does not denote something that is shaped like a point, not having 
extension in space. In fact, the Persian word abad stands for a city, a cultivated region that is 
inhabited and consequently an expanse. What Sohrawardi therefore describes as being 
located "beyond Mount Qaf' is what all the mystical cities, such as Jabalqa, Jabarsa, and 
Hurqalya, represent for him and through him for the entire theosophist tradition of Islam. It 
is made quite clear that topographically this region starts at the "convex surface" of the ninth 
Sphere, the Sphere of Spheres, or the Sphere that envelops the Cosmos as a whole. This 
means it begins at the very moment one leaves the Supreme Sphere, which defines all the 
types of orientation possible in our world (or on our side of the world), the "Sphere" to 
which the cardinal points refer. It becomes obvious that, once this border has been crossed, 
the question "where" (ubi, koja) becomes meaningless at least in terms of the meaning it has 



2 cf. Henry Corbin, Histoire de let philosophic istamique, vol. I, Paris (Gallimard), 1964, pp. 222 ff., 317 ff. 



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in the realm of sensible experience. Hence we find the expression Na-Koja-Abad, which is a 
place out of space, a "place" that is not contained in any other place, in a topos, making it 
possible to give an answer to the question "where" by a gesture of the hand. What precisely 
do we mean, however, when we talk of "leaving the where "? 

Undoubtedly what is involved is not a movement from one locality to another , 3 a bodily 
transfer from one place to another, as would occur in the case of places in the same 
homogenous space. As suggested at the end of Sohrawardi's tale by the symbol of the drop 
of balsam in the hollow of the hand held up to the sun, it is essential to go inward, to 
penetrate to the interior. Yet, having reached the interior, one finds oneself paradoxically on 
the outside , or, in the language of our authors, "on the convex surface" of the ninth Sphere, in 
other words "beyond Mount Qaf '. Essentially the relationship involved is that of the outer, 
the visible, the exoteric (in Greek ta exo, in Arabic %ahir) to the inner, the invisible, the 
esoteric (in Greek ta eso, in Arabic hatiri), or the relationship of the natural to the spiritual 
world. Leaving the where, the ubi category, is equivalent to leaving the outer or natural 
appearances that cloak the hidden inner realities, just as the almond is concealed in its shell. 
For the Stranger, the Gnostic, this step represents a return home, or at least a striving in this 
direction. 

Yet strange as it may seem, once the journey is completed, the reality which has hitherto 
been an inner and hidden one turns out to envelop, surround, or contain that which at first 
was outer and visible. As a result of internalization, one has moved out of external reality. 
Henceforth, spiritual reality envelops, surrounds, contains so-called material reality. Spiritual 
reality can therefore not be found "in the where" . The " where " is in it. In other words, spiritual 
reality itself is the "where" of all things. It is not located anywhere and it is not covered by 
the question "where", the ubi category referring to a place in sensible space. Its place (abad) 
as compared to the latter is Na-koja (nonwhere) because, in relation to what is in sensory 
space, its ubi is an ubique (everywhere). Once we have understood this, we perhaps 
understand the most important thing enabling us to follow the topography of visionary 
experiences. We may discover the way (sens in French), both in terms of meaning and in 
terms of direction. Moreover, it may help us to discover what distinguishes the visionary 
experience of spiritualists, like Sohrawardi and so many others, from such pejorative terms in 
our modern vocabulary as "figments of the mind" or "imaginings" — to wit, Utopian 
fantasies. 

At this point, however, we must make a real effort to overcome what one might call Western 
man's "agnostic reflex", since it is responsible for the divorce between thinking and being. A 
whole host of recent theories have their tacit origin in this reflex, and it is expected to help 
us escape the other realm of reality that confronts us with certain experiences and evidence. 
We try to run from this reality, even when we are secretly attracted by it. As a result we give 
it all sorts of ingenious explanations but discard the only one which would by its very 
existence suggest what this reality is! To understand the hint we would in any event have to 
have a cosmology that cannot even be compared with the most outstanding discoveries of 



3 Therefore the representation of the Sphere of Spheres is only a schematic indication in peripatetic or 
Ptolemean astronomy; it continues to be valid, even though this astronomy has been given up. This means that 
no matter how high you might be able to go by rockets or Sputniks, you will never have progressed one inch 
toward Na-Koja-Abad, because the "threshold" will not have been crossed. 



4 




modem science in relation to our physical universe. For as long as we are exclusively 
concerned with the physical universe, we remain tied to the mode of being "on this side of 
Mount Qaf'. The traditional cosmology of Islamic theosophers is characterized by a 
structure consisting of the various universes and intermediate as well as intermediary worlds 
"beyond Mount Qaf', i.e., beyond the physical universes. It is intelligible only to a mode of 
existence whose act of being is an expression of its presence in these worlds. Conversely, 
owing to this act of being, these worlds are present in it . 4 What then is the dimension of this 
act of being that is, or will be in the course of future palingeneses, the place of these universes 
which are outside our natural space? And first of all, what worlds are these? 

There is the physical, sensible world encompassing both our terrestial world (governed by 
the human souls) and the sidereal universe (governed by the Souls of the Spheres). The 
sensible world is the world of the phenomenon ( molk :). There is also the supersensible world 
of the Soul or Angel Souls, the Malakut, in which the above mentioned mystical Cities are 
located, and which starts at the "convex surface of the ninth Sphere". And there is the world 
of pure archangelic Intelligences. Each of these three worlds has its organ of perception: the 
senses, imagination, and the intellect, corresponding with the triad: body, soul and mind. The 
triads govern the threefold development of man extending from this world to his 
resurrections in the other worlds. 

We realize immediately that we are no longer confined to the dilemma of thought and 
extension, to the schema of a cosmology and a gnoseology restricted to the empirical world 
and the world of abstract intellect. Between them there is a world that is both intermediary 
and intermediate, described by our authors as the 'alam al-mithal . , the world of the image, the 
mundus imaginalis-. a world that is ontologically as real as the world of the senses and that of 
the intellect. This world requires its own faculty of perception, namely, imaginative power, a 
faculty with a cognitive function, a noetic value which is as real as that of sense perception or 
intellectual intuition. We must be careful not to confuse it with the imagination identified by 
so-called modern man with "fantasy", and which, according to him, is nothing but an 
outpour of "imaginings". This brings us to the heart of the matter and our problem of 
terminology. 

What is this intermediary universe, i.e., the one we referred to earlier as the "eighth clime "? 5 
For all our thinkers the sensible world of space consists of the seven climes belonging to 
traditional geography. However, there is another clime represented by a world possessing 
extension and dimension, figures and colours; but these features cannot be perceived by the 
senses in the same manner as if they were the properties of physical bodies. No, these 
dimensions, figures, and colours are the object of imaginative perception, or of the "psycho- 
spiritual senses". This fully objective and real world with equivalents for everything existing 
in the sensible world without being perceptible by the senses is designated as the eighth 
clime. The term speaks for itself, since it signifies a clime outside all climes, a place outside 
all places, outside of where (Na-Koja-Abad). 



4 On this notion of presence, cf. in particular the author's introduction to Molla Sadra Shirazi, Te Uvre des 
Penetrations metaphysiques (Kitab al-Masha'ir j, French edition and translation (Bibliotheque Iranienne, vol. 10), 
Paris (Adrien-Maisonneuve), 1964, index s.v. 

5 For what follows, cf. Henry Corbin, Terre ceteste et corps de resurrection: de I' Iran ma^deen a t'lran shi'ite, Paris 
(Buchet-Chastel-Correa), 1961, pp. 130, 133, 142f£, 199 ff. 



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